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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Habakkuk

by Charles John Ellicott





I. The Author.—Habakkuk’s own words lead to the inference that he prophesied shortly before the battle of Carchemish, B.C. 605, and therefore in the reign of Jehoiakim (5 infra). But we are told nothing concerning his tribe, birthplace, or personal history. The earliest legend bearing on these points is in the apocryphal book, “Bel and the Dragon.” It is there recorded (chap. iii. 33 seq.), that the prophet Habakkuk was commissioned by an angel to feed Daniel in the den of lions, and that for this purpose he was miraculously transported from Judæa to Babylon. The story, worthless in itself, nevertheless indirectly confirms the theory of “date,” which we have accepted below. Its existence indicates that the Jewish tradition connected Habakkuk’s ministry with the period of Babylonish captivity—with the reign of Jehoiakim, rather than with those of Manasseh, Amon, or Josiah. Another point of interest in the legend is the superscription in Cod. Chisianus of the LXX. (from Origen’s Tetraplar, and the Syro-Hexaplar), claiming Habakkuk himself as the author of “Bel and the Dragon.” This superscription runs, “From the prophecy of Habakkuk, the son of Joshua, of the tribe of Levi.” The reference to the prophet’s tribe has attracted special attention, in view of the prescription in Habakkuk 3:19 : “To the chief musician upon my stringed instruments.” It has been inferred, from the use of the possessive pronoun, that Habakkuk was capacitated for taking a Levite’s part in the Temple services. This inference, however, is devoid of substantial basis. It is possible that the term ngînôthay is a dual form, not the plural with the possessive affix—a “double-stringed instrument,” not “my stringed instruments.” And whatever the meaning of the term, King Hezekiah prescribes the same liturgical use at the end of his psalm in Isaiah 38:0 (Heb. nnaggên ngînôthay, Authorised Version,” We will sing my songs to the stringed instruments.”) But Hezekiah was not a Levite. Why must Habakkuk have been one? In fact, the passage (Habakkuk 3:19) proves nothing whatever with regard to the prophet’s tribe. The superscription to “Bel and the Dragon” must be judged on its own merits; and it merely shows that a Jewish tradition of early date made “Joshua” the name of Habakkuk’s father, and Levi his tribe.

Later and less respectable traditions appear in the Rabbinic writings. Such is the legend that Habakkuk was the watchman set by Isaiah to observe the destruction of Babylon, a legend based on a combination of Isaiah 21:16 and Habakkuk 2:1. Such, too, is the tradition repeated by Abarbanel, that the prophet was that son of a Shunammite woman whom Elisha restored to life (2 Kings 4:0). Etymology has here, as in other cases, become the parent of an absurd myth. The name Habakkuk is connected by derivation with the verb chábak, “to embrace.” In 2 Kings 4:16 occur the words “thou shalt embrace (châbak) a son.” This is the sole foundation of the tradition. In this connection we remark that there is no reason to give the name “Habakkuk” any symbolical meaning whatever. It was probably the name which the prophet bore from childhood, not an official or ministerial designation.

II. Occasion of Writing.—Habakkuk is summoned to announce Jehovah’s intention of punishing the iniquities which prevail among his compatriots. The instruments who are to effect this Divine chastisement are the armies of Chaldæa, or Babylonia (Habakkuk 1:6). Their invasion shall effect a catastrophe of strange and incredible extent: men “shall not believe it, though it be told them” (Habakkuk 1:5). The prophet warns his compatriots that this chastisement shall come “in your days”—i.e., ere the present generation has passed away (Habakkuk 1:5). Most commentators have recognised that the denunciation is to be explained by the events which followed the great battle at Carchemish on the Euphrates, B.C. 605. This battle suddenly brought the chosen nation under the heel of the Babylonian conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar. Jewish sympathy had been on the losing side—that of the Egyptian Pharaoh-Necho, for the Jewish king Jehoiakim was the nominee of Egypt, and Jeremiah had vainly tried to detach his countrymen from the cause of the southern empire. It was only natural that Nebuchadnezzar’s victory was followed by an invasion of Judæa. Jehoiakim apparently came to terms with the conqueror, and was suffered to retain his throne as a tributary of Babylon. Three years later he was ill-advised enough to renounce this allegiance. Nebuchadnezzar punished his insubordinate dependent by the agency of other vassals, the Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites. Judah was ravaged, and a period of great misery ensued. Jehoiakim fell, perhaps by the hands of his own subjects. His son and successor, Jehoiachin, seems to have continued his unwise policy of resistance. Within fourteen weeks of his accession, Nebuchadnezzar himself came up and besieged Jerusalem. The king surrendered himself and his family, and his deposition immediately followed. Nebuchadnezzar now sacked Jerusalem. “And he carried out thence all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house . . . and he carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained save the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:13-14). It is, we believe, to this crowning disaster that Habakkuk’s sentence points—“Behold ye. . . . and wonder marvellously, for I will work a work in your days which ye will not believe, though it be told you” (Habakkuk 1:5).

We have now to consider how far the prophetic sentence is separated in point of time from its completion. Those commentators who repudiate or minimise the preternatural element in the prophetic Scriptures have insisted that Habakkuk’s composition must have followed, not preceded, the battle of Carchemish. Critics of the opposite school have, on the contrary, laboured to prove that Habakkuk wrote when no Chaldæan invasion was expected, placing the prophet’s date even as far back as the reign of Manasseh (B.C. 698-643). In this behalf it is argued that Habakkuk 1:5 implies that the prophet’s readers were altogether unacquainted with the Chaldæans, and would be amazed at the announcement of their approach. Thus Dr. Pusey writes:—“In that he speaks of that invasion as a thing incredible to those to whom he was speaking, he must have prophesied before Babylon became independent by the overthrow of Nineveh, B.C. 625. For when Babylon had displaced Nineveh, and divided the Empire of the East with Media and Egypt, it was not a thing incredible.” This argument is, however, of no real value. It is perfectly allowable to interpret Habakkuk 1:5 as we have done above, by the sequel of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. Such a catastrophe as overtook Jerusalem in the reign of Jehoiachin may well have appeared incredible, even after the battle of Carchemish.

Cœteris paribus, the phraseology of Habakkuk 1:6, “Lo, I raise up the Chaldæans,” would lead us to infer that the great battle had not yet been fought, nor the Chaldæan king installed as suzerain of Judæa. And this inference has certainly nothing opposed to it but the presumption of modern critics that predictive inspiration has no place in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that the utterances of the prophets are mere vaticinia post eventum. On the other hand, common sense suggests that the detailed account of Chaldæan manners and morals given in Habakkuk 2:0 is based on personal experience. Both writer and readers would seem to be acquainted with the Babylonians—their wild appearance, their vast success, their overweening ambition, their peculiar vices. (See Habakkuk 1:7-8; Habakkuk 2:5 seq.) To admit such an acquaintance as this is not necessarily to disparage Habakkuk’s power of prediction. No experience of such a kind could have justified an expectation of the astounding catastrophe foretold in Habakkuk 1:5 seq. Before Judæa could be invaded by the Babylonians, Egypt, the suzerain of Jehoiakim, had to be defeated. And who could have foreseen the actual issue of the battle by the Euphrates? As Dr. Pusey argues, human foresight would rather have predicted another Egyptian triumph at Carchemish. The balance of probability certainly inclined on the side of those “prophets, diviners, dreamers, enchanters, and sorcerers who told the Jews, “Ye shall not serve the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 27:9). It is plain, therefore, that we may place Habakkuk’s date, for the sake of Habakkuk 2:0, in a period when the Babylonian invasion was imminent, and the character of the eastern empire well known in Judæa, and yet in no way impugn his predictive powers, or his Divine legation. His claim to be a “seer” remains unshaken, albeit he only sees into a future not far distant.

It is important to recognise this distinction, because (apart from the details in Habakkuk 2:0) the internal evidence seems to point to no earlier reign than Jehoiakim’s—i.e., to a date not more than five years anterior to the battle of Carchemish. This will be gathered from the following analysis:—

(a) The prophecy can hardly have been uttered more than thirty years before the catastrophe predicted, for Habakkuk 1:5 asserts that it shall occur “in the days” of the present generation. This inference precludes our assigning the prophecy to the reign of Manasseh, which came to an end about thirty-eight years before the battle of Carchemish.

(b) The successors of Manasseh were Amon (B.C. 643-641) and Josiah (B.C. 641-610). The years B.C. 643-623 (from the accession of Amon to Josiah’s Reformation) may be regarded as forming one distinct period, a period of fearful religious decadence. To such an extent did false worship spread during these years, that the female devotees of the ashêrâh (Authorised Version, “grove”) set up their obscene rites in the house of the Lord itself. (See 2 Kings 23:4-7.) Josiah, in B.C. 623, had to purge the temple of the ashêrâh, and of vessels made for Baal. Even by those who retained the knowledge of God, Moloch was often put on an equal footing with Jehovah (Zephaniah 1:5). Now had Habakkuk written in this period, surely he would, like Zephaniah, have included this fearful prevalence of idolatry among the national sins which called for God’s chastisement (Habakkuk 1:1-4). At any rate, he could hardly with consistency ignore these sins at home, and yet denounce Chaldæan idol-worship abroad (Habakkuk 2:18-19). Still less appropriate would be an appeal to Jehovah’s presence “in His holy Temple” (Habakkuk 2:20). Nor would such a season be suitable for the composition of a hymn expressly designed for public liturgical performance; see Habakkuk 3:1; Habakkuk 3:19.

(c) Neither can we find a suitable place for Habakkuk’s ministry in the latter part of Josiah’s reign (B.C. 623-610). The sweeping reformation of this king’s eighteenth year is not likely to have left behind it social disorders such as Habakkuk complains of in chapter 1. A king who could put away “workers with familiar spirits, and wizards, and the images and the idols, and all the abominations that were spied in the land of Israel,” would surely not have spared the class oppression and judicial maladministration described in Habakkuk 1:2-4. Prophecies there certainly were at this time of a Divine chastisement on Jerusalem for the sins of the former generation (comp. 2 Kings 23:27 with 2 Chronicles 34:23 seq.). But we know of no denunciation of iniquities still existent. Nor is there any reason to believe that the disorders of the preceding period survived Josiah’s Reformation.

(d) This brings us to 610, the year of the accession of Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim. The former reigned oppressively three months, and was deposed by Pharaoh-Necho in favour of his brother, Eliakim, whose name was changed to Jehoiakim. Bad as both these kings were, they do not appear to have undone Josiah’s work of ecclesiastical reform. The worship of Jehovah continued. A hymn for public performance in the Temple would not now be an anomaly as in the reign of Amon. On the other hand, oppression and maladministration prevailed, such as Habakkuk deplores. Jehoiakim’s “eyes and heart were only for covetousness, and for to shed innocent blood, and for oppression and violence to do it” (Jeremiah 22:17). Under such a ruler the state of society would necessarily be such as is depicted in Habakkuk 1:1-4. The minute account of the Chaldæans (Habakkuk 2:0) is also suitable enough in this reign. In the reign of Josiah, the Jews were probably less perfectly acquainted with Babylonian habits.

The only plausible argument against this theory of date is one that is easily disposed of. It has been argued from a comparison of Habakkuk 2:20, Zephaniah 1:7, that Habakkuk is quoted by Zephaniah, and the latter we know wrote in Josiah’s reign. The similarity of diction in these two passages is certainly remarkable. It is perhaps sufficient to prove that one prophet quoted the other, for the phrase “hush at the presence of” (has mippnêy) does not occur elsewhere. But there is not a particle of proof that Habakkuk did not borrow the phrase from Zephaniah, rather than Zephaniah from Habakkuk. The former explanation is quite as admissible as the latter, although Zephaniah is, as a rule, more dependent on earlier sources than Habakkuk. A close resemblance may be detected also between Habakkuk 1:8 and Jeremiah 4:13. Here, however, there is no reason to think that there is any citation, and the question of date is not affected. We conclude, on the grounds specified above, that Habakkuk’s prophecy dates from the reign of Jehoiakim, not more than five years at most before the battle of Carchemish—how much nearer that great event it is impossible to say.

III. Contents.—The book of Habakkuk falls into four main divisions (a) Habakkuk 1:1-11; (b) Habakkuk 1:12 to Habakkuk 2:20; (c) Habakkuk 3:1-15; (d) Habakkuk 3:16-19. The contents of these divisions may be thus analysed:—

(a) While the prophet deplores the anarchy, oppression, and social disorder which prevail among his countrymen (Habakkuk 1:1-4), Jehovah announces that the Chaldæans are commissioned to execute a chastisement of fearful severity (Habakkuk 1:5). The appearance, character, and operations of these invaders are described (Habakkuk 1:6-11).

(b) Habakkuk expostulates with God. The sins of his countrymen are surpassed by the cruelty and godless arrogance of the Chaldæans. Is the sacred people to be exterminated by such a race as this? (Habakkuk 1:12-17). After patient waiting, he receives Jehovah’s answer. The judgment is yet to be developed. Final triumph is not for the proud godless invader, but for him who waits on Jehovah in faith (Habakkuk 2:1-4). The sins of the Chaldæans are denounced—viz., drunkenness, greed, cruelty, insatiable ambition, and degraded idolatry. Justice demands their punishment. Jehovah is in His holy temple; let the world await His sentence in silence (Habakkuk 2:5-20).

(c) In a poem of great power and beauty (Habakkuk 3:1-15), Habakkuk describes the Divine interposition. God shall reveal Himself as He did in the time of the Exodus and the Judges. The nations shall tremble as they see the works of His creation—mountains, rivers, seas, yea, sun and moon in their courses—all acknowledging His awful presence.

(d) The prophet reverts to the earlier revelation, and describes his own emotion at the prospect of the impending invasion. But in the midst of the anticipated calamities—war, devastation, and famine—he will cling confidently and cheerfully to Jehovah the all-powerful (Habakkuk 3:16-19).

IV. Character and style.—The historical importance of Habakkuk’s composition will be gathered from what has been said under the preceding headings. Nahum concluded the Divine sentences against Assyria; Habakkuk is summoned to denounce the new world-power, whose metropolis is Babylon. Of predictive power we had a remarkable instance in Nahum: the same gift is claimed by Habakkuk, and illustrated scarcely less strikingly. For the Christian, however, the permanent value of this composition lies, not merely in this obvious stamp of inspiration, but in its underlying tone of deep personal faith. It is this that has made certain texts of Habakkuk so familiar to us. The passage, Habakkuk 2:4 is memorable as pressed into service in those Pauline Epistles which were written to guard the infant Church against Judaism. It received a new and somewhat fatal significance during the religious struggles of the sixteenth century. But for the sincere disciple of Christ it still retains that appropriate application which is given it in Hebrews 10:37. “Yet a little while, and He that is to come will come, and will not tarry. The just shall live by faith”—what more suggestive motto for the Church oppressed by the powers of this world, or for the individual believer, beset by the dark hour of perplexity and doubt? Scarcely less familiar is that grand expression of confidence, amid troubles, with which the Book of Habakkuk closes—Habakkuk 3:17-19. Persevering, patient faith; this is the principle which characterises the whole composition of the prophet Habakkuk, and which still endears it to the Christian. For him its value lies mainly in its practical teaching—

“To learn from self to cease,

Leave all things to a Father’s will,
And taste before Him lying still,

E’en in affliction, peace.”

With respect to Habakkuk’s manner of writing, it may be said that he shows himself master of two styles, very different in appearance. In the first two chapters, he writes tersely—not so tersely as Nahum—more so than Zephaniah. This part of the book is of an homiletic character, and is sententious, rather than picturesque. Much of it is in a dialogue form. The prophet complains or expostulates: Jehovah answering, denounces or consoles. Chapter 3, on the other hand, introduces a vision of Divine interposition, framed as a lyrical poem. The style necessarily changes with the subject Terseness gives place to florid eloquence, sententious denunciation to an exuberance of ornate description. Here Habakkuk is seen at his best. He is not strictly an original poet, for much of the diction is based on earlier compositions. To Deuteronomy 32:0, Judges 5:0, Psalms 68:0 he owes the same kind of debt that Lucretius owes to Euripides and Empedocles. The result of the adaptation is a piece almost unrivalled for sublimity and vigour. This transition, from rhetorical prose to poetry, might be illustrated from the works of numerous authors, both ancient and modern. The theories that Habakkuk wrote Habakkuk 3:0 at a later period, or that it was written by some other hand, only deserve notice as examples of hypercritical eccentricity.

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